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Friday, 6 December 1985
Page: 3143

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(11.43) —I thank Senator Haines for a very constructive and thoughtful contribution to the debate on the Companies and Securities Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 1985, which demonstrates a much better understanding of the principles of the legislation than was evident from the previous Attorney-General, Senator Durack.

Senator Haines —That is only because you agree with me. If you didn't agree with me you wouldn't say that.

Senator GARETH EVANS —My idea of an agreeable person is one I agree with. The honourable senator is absolutely right. Senator Durack's speech, by contrast, was the kind of cry of pain and distress that we are used to hearing from him whenever he is confronted with something large and complex. It is a cry we heard from him often enough when he was in government when he had the support structure to prop him up; in Opposition it has become even more familiar, although I suppose it is more understandable. I put that to one side and concentrate on the focus of his attack today which was the inappropriateness, in his words, of this Parliament being asked to adopt a take it or leave it approach to the package of amendments which has come to us from the Ministerial Council on Companies and Securities. Under the co-operative scheme which was, of course, the brainchild of the Liberal Party of Australia when in government and, in particular, the present Leader of the Opposition, John Howard, as the then Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, the Commonwealth has effectively surrendered its legislative power in favour of legislation agreed to by a majority of the States and the Federal Government.

If the Opposition does not like that state of affairs it ought to contemplate joining with us, as it should have done years ago, in enacting a single national company law system which would enable this package of legislation to remain completely within the control of the national government. That is as it should be, the Australian Labor Party has traditionally argued, because of the essentially national character of the problems with which the legislation is dealing. The Labor Party did not support the establishment of a scheme in this form. It preferred a national approach but in Government we have been prepared to live with a co-operative scheme for as long as it works and while efforts are being made to improve the national standards and the scheme is able to cope with the increasing demands for uniformity of regulation of the national companies and securities markets.

When one comes to the substance of the legislation, it may well be that the Opposition does have some disagreements with particular aspects of the Bill. It may indeed be that the Government does not regard every last clause of this Bill as ideal. But it is the obvious and inevitable consequence of the structure of the co-operative scheme that the outcome of the deliberations by eight different governments of different political persuasions with local conditions and pressures which differ in some degree-in those circumstances-will be such that compromises will be reached. If one takes the view that Senator Durack seems to be putting to us that it is an appropriate course of action for this Parliament to reject outright legislation or make sweeping and significant amendments to it, the result of that would, of course, simply be to create an impasse as far as the States were concerned.

Senator Durack —Why would it if the Ministerial Council accepted our view?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The situation would be that the proposal would go back to the Ministerial Council. It would look at it and if it did not like it, we would have a situation where, in terms of the existing co-operative agreement, after the lapse of six months each of the States could go its own way and that would be the end of uniformity as we know it. If Senator Durack thinks that something is to be gained by bluff, brinksmanship and aggressive and sophisticated negotiations of a kind that he no doubt thinks he is capable of but the historical record is otherwise, I simply remind him of the fact that this legislation has already been through a very prolonged process of debate, discussion, consultation and the reaching of compromises between the particular--

Senator Durack —But not in any parliament in Australia.

Senator GARETH EVANS —You were on the phone and you were not listening to what I was saying. You never listen to what I am saying anyway. You would learn a great deal if you did. The problem is that we are caught in a situation where we have abdicated legislative authority to an extra-parliamentary body. It is a peculiar and unique feature of this legislative scheme. It is a lousy legislative scheme and I fully agree that that is so. We ought to do something about it but as long as we have got it we are stuck with it. It is no good behaving in this quixotic, will-o'-the-wisp, away with the elves and fairies approach that Senator Durack brings to these debates because it has no shred of reality and no shred of substance in terms of what he is saying.

I turn finally to the long-winded, rambling, but at the end of the day, utterly trivial second reading amendment that Senator Durack has advanced. Again, it is just a general all purpose whinge, rather than any kind of constructive contribution in the national Parliament to the issues with which this Bill is concerned. I take issue with the claims that this legislation imposes excessive regulation and that it is unduly complex or unintelligible, even though I readily acknowledge that no doubt large slabs of it are completely unintelligible to Senator Durack. The truth of the matter is that this Government has adopted a very aggressive deregulatory posture across a whole range of business activity. I will not bore or detain the Senate by spelling out in detail what that has been. I simply remind the Senate, among other things, that in a recent companies amendment Bill we stripped away very substantially the amount of financial and other information which companies are required to include in their annual returns. The commitment is there and any additional regulations that do arise from time-to-time in the context of this kind of legislative package are based on a very careful cost-benefit analysis.

We all aspire finally to the aim of framing legislation which is as brief and simple as possible. However, the hard reality, as much as Senator Durack might fulminate against it, is that this legislation of necessity deals with complex matters and difficult issues of law which it is simply not possible to instil into a few sentences of felicitous language. The state of the law is simply a reflection of the increasingly complicated and sophisticated structures through which business is carried on. It seems only logical if the manner in which modern business is conducted is not immediately intelligible to the ordinary man in the street, the law required to deal with it may not be so either. It is a pursuit of the will-o'-the-wisp, this constant crying of two-bob populists around the place for legislation that is intelligible to the intelligent layman. The intelligent layman would not waste his time propping up beside his bed legislation of this kind and the sooner we recognise that reality the better off we will all be.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be added (Senator Durack's amendment) be added.